Last Falcon 9 v1.1 Successfully Boosts Jason-3 to Orbit, Reportedly Suffers Landing Leg Breakage During Oceanic Touchdown

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is seen as it launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base Space Launch Complex 4 East with the Jason-3 spacecraft onboard, , Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Jason-3, an international mission led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), will help continue U.S.-European satellite measurements of global ocean height changes. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is seen as it launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base Space Launch Complex 4 East with the Jason-3 spacecraft onboard, , Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. Jason-3, an international mission led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), will help continue U.S.-European satellite measurements of global ocean height changes. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Despite ground fog which rolled across Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., virtually obscuring the star of the show from view in its final minutes on Earth, SpaceX successfully delivered its 15th and final Falcon 9 v1.1 booster aloft earlier today (Sunday, 17 January) and transported the joint NASA/NOAA Jason-3 ocean altimetry mission into a polar orbit which will carry it from an altitude of 825 miles (1,328 km) at perigee to 857 miles (1,380 km) at apogee. The on-time launch took place on the opening of a 30-second “window” at 10:42:18 a.m. PST (1:42:18 p.m. EST) from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-4E at the West Coast launch facility and served to redeem the v1.1’s reputation one last time, following its catastrophic failure last June. It also appeared that the attempt to land its first-stage hardware on the deck of the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) was achieved successfully, though harder than intended, resulting in the breakage of one of the Falcon 9’s quartet of landing legs.

“The 30th Space Wing takes pride in supporting the successful launch of the new ocean monitoring satellite with the NASA and SpaceX teams,” said Col. Shane Clark, Vice Commander of the 30th Space Wing at Vandenberg, who served as Launch Decision Authority. “Today’s launch is a testament to the professionalism and commitment to mission assurance, public safety, and mission success on the Western Range.”

As outlined in a previous AmericaSpace article, today’s mission represented the 15th and final flight of the Falcon 9 v1.1, a two-stage booster with the potential to deliver 28,990 pounds (13,150 kg) into low-Earth orbit and up to 10,690 pounds (4,850 kg) into Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO). First flown in September 2013, the v1.1 boasts nine Merlin 1D engines on its first stage—configured with a circle of eight engines and a ninth in the center—which produce 1.3 million pounds (590,000 kg) of propulsive yield at T-0, together with a single Merlin 1D Vacuum engine on its second stage, capable of 180,000 pounds (81,600 kg) of thrust. This was expected to be more than sufficient to deposit the 1,150-pound (525-kg) Jason-3 satellite into its near-circular low-Earth orbit of 825 miles (1,328 km) x 857 miles (1,380 km).

Since its maiden voyage, the v1.1 has transported seven commercial communications satellites into GTO, together with NASA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) to the L1 Lagrange Point—representing SpaceX’s first foray beyond Earth orbit—as well as launching five Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) Dragon cargo vessels toward the International Space Station (ISS). All but one of those Dragons successfully reached their destination, with the ill-fated CRS-7, last 28 June, suffering a catastrophic failure late in first-stage flight, leaving the v1.1 with a cumulative 93.3-percent success rate. The v1.1’s achievement comes on the back of its predecessor, the Falcon 9 v1.0, which flew five times, all successfully, between June 2010 and March 2013. Future missions will be executed by the Upgraded Falcon 9, which debuted last month, and the forthcoming Falcon Heavy, which is currently aiming for a maiden flight by mid-2016.

Sunday's launch of Jason-3 marked the final flight of the Falcon 9 in its v1.1 configuration. Future missions will utilize the Upgraded Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. Photo Credit: SpaceX
Sunday’s launch of Jason-3 marked the final flight of the Falcon 9 in its v1.1 configuration. Future missions will utilize the Upgraded Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. Photo Credit: SpaceX

As highlighted by AmericaSpace’s Mike Killian, the Flight Readiness Review (FRR) was conducted on 8 January, followed by a customary Static Fire Test of the nine Merlin 1D first-stage engines on the evening of the 11th. The Falcon 9 was then removed from the SLC-4E pad surface and returned to a horizontal configuration, allowing for the integration of the Jason-3 satellite—by now encapsulated within its bulbous Payload Fairing (PLF)—and final checks. Following completion of the Launch Readiness Review (LRR) on Friday, 15 January, the booster, which stood approximately 224 feet (68.5 meters) tall, was elevated to a vertical orientation at SLC-4E by 11:11 a.m. PST (2:11 p.m. EST) Saturday.

Sunday dawned fine at Vandenberg, with Launch Weather Officer Lt. Joseph Round of the 30th Operations Support Squadron declaring a “rare” 100-percent probability of acceptable meteorological conditions at T-0. Due to the nature of Jason-3’s precise orbit, which will require it to function in tandem with the 2008-launched Jason-2 satellite, this next-generation member of an ocean-monitoring network—which began in 1992 with the joint U.S./French TOPEX/Poseidon and was continued by the 2001-launched Jason-1—was restricted to a 30-second “window,” which opened at 10:42:18 a.m. PST (1:42:18 p.m. EST). NASA reported that launch managers and controllers took their stations early Sunday, before pressing ahead with polling to ensure that all systems were ready to begin fueling the Falcon 9.

Unlike the Upgraded Falcon 9—which utilizes “densified” cryogens, capable of being loaded much later in the countdown—the v1.1 requires its propellants to be loaded much earlier. Approximately 3 hours and 50 minutes before T-0, the process of loading about 262,570 pounds (119,100 kg) of highly refined rocket-grade kerosene (known as “RP-1”) into the booster’s first-stage fuel tanks got underway, followed by some 609,800 pounds (276,600 kg) of liquid oxygen. “To enable safe tanking and operation of this fuel, the ground and rocket facilities need to be chilled-down along with all piping, valves and ancillary equipment,” noted AmericaSpace’s Launch Tracker, run by Mike Barrett, at 7:55 a.m. PST (10:55 a.m. EST). “This prevents the possibility of a component failing through thermal shock.” A combined total of 61,400 pounds (27,850 kg) of RP-1 and 142,900 pounds (64,820 kg) of liquid oxygen were also loaded aboard the second stage, supporting the single Merlin 1D Vacuum engine, which would execute a pair of “burns” to deliver Jason-3 into orbit. When all the propellants were aboard the vehicle, the liquid oxygen entered a “topping-off” mode, as boiled-off cryogens were continuously replenished until close to T-0.

The weather situation remained acceptable, despite the arrival of coastal fog, which rolled over SLC-4E and obscured the Falcon 9 by 8:30 a.m. PST (11:30 a.m. EST). “The fog is anticipated to disperse before the launch terminal countdown,” our Launch Tracker pointed out. Customary checks of the Flight Termination System (FTS)—which would activate on-board ordnance to destroy the booster, in the event of a major contingency during ascent—were performed and shortly before 9:50 a.m. PST (12:50 p.m. EST) the L-1 Hour Weather Briefing confirmed a zero-percent likelihood of any Launch Commit Criteria (LCC) being broken. “There will be some fog around which is denser than was forecast,” explained the Tracker, “but it will not affect the launch.” High-altitude weather balloon data confirmed that upper-level winds were “Green” (“Go”), well within acceptable limits.

The Jason-3 satellite undergoing final preparations for placement within a payload fairing for launch. Photo Credit: NASA
The Jason-3 satellite undergoing final preparations for placement within a payload fairing for launch. Photo Credit: NASA

At T-13 minutes, the Launch Director ran through a poll of all 19 stations, each of which crisply reported their readiness to support the launch, despite a slight delay from the Ground Control and Software Control consoles. Passage through this polling phase allowed the Launch Director to issue permission to the Launch Conductor to press into the Terminal Countdown at T-10 minutes. During these final minutes, the final v1.1 transitioned to internal power and assumed primary control of its on-board critical functions, as well as chilling-down the Merlin 1D first-stage engines to properly condition them, ahead of the onset of their ignition sequence at T-3 seconds.

Despite a minor issue with the Merlin 1D Vacuum second-stage engine, at 10:36 a.m. PST (1:36 p.m. EST), the approximately 90-second retraction of the strongback from the vehicle got underway. As the clock continued ticking, the FTS was activated, liquid oxygen replenishment was terminated, all propellant tanks were pressurized and the Launch Director issued a final “Go for Launch” at T-2 minutes. At the same time, the Air Force Range Safety Officer (RSO) also confirmed the range’s preparedness to support the launch. The nine Merlin 1D first-stage engines were purged with inert gaseous nitrogen, the Range Operations Co-ordinator (ROC) confirmed “Range Green” at T-40 seconds and the v1.1’s propellant tanks were verified at flight pressures at T-30 seconds.

With SLC-4E’s “Niagara” deluge system by now in full flow, depositing 30,000 gallons (113,500 liters) of water, per minute, across the pad surface and flame trench, the nine Merlins ignited at T-3 seconds, quickly ramping up to a combined 1.3 million pounds (590,000 kg) of thrust, and the vehicle departed Vandenberg precisely on the opening of the window at 10:42:18 a.m. PST (1:42:18 p.m. EST).

Rising rapidly into the murky California sky, the Falcon 9 passed Mach 1 within 70 seconds and proceeded through a period of maximum aerodynamic pressure—known colloquially as “Max Q”—where atmospheric effects upon its airframe reached their most severe. At 10:44 a.m. PST (1:44 p.m. EST), about 2.5 minutes into the uphill climb, the engines shut down and the first stage was jettisoned a few seconds thereafter. This established the proper conditions for the ignition of the Merlin 1D Vacuum engine on the second stage, which was destined to conduct two burns to inject Jason-3 into orbit. The first of these burns ran for a little over six minutes, producing 180,000 pounds (81,600 kg) of thrust, during which period the PLF was discarded, exposing Jason-3 to the space environment for the first time. The Merlin 1D Vacuum engine shut down at 10:51:18 a.m. PST (1:51:18 p.m. EST), about nine minutes after departing Vandenberg, after which a 46-minute “coast” ensued, prior to a relighting of the second stage to establish the satellite into its desired orbit.

In the meantime, the “West Coast” Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS)—nicknamed “Just Read the Instructions”—had been positioned about 173 miles (278 km) to the south of Vandenberg, off San Diego. Although Just Read the Instructions has been used for previous East Coast oceanic landing attempts, another drone ship, “Of Course I Still Love You”, will be dedicated to future SpaceX landing operations from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. AmericaSpace has been advised by SpaceX that all Falcon 9 first-stage hardware for the “next few missions” will attempt oceanic landings on the ASDS. “For Jason-3, we didn’t receive environmental approval for a land landing in time for the launch, so we are doing it on the drone ship,” we were advised, “plus this is good practice for future high-velocity launches that don’t enough of a delta-velocity budget to return to the launch site.”

Today's Falcon 9 v1.1 first-stage hardware reached the deck of the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), but impacted harder than expected and broke one of its four landing legs. Photo Credit: SpaceX
Today’s Falcon 9 v1.1 first-stage hardware reached the deck of the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), but impacted harder than expected and broke one of its four landing legs. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Today’s landing was hoped to mark the first wholly successful touchdown of Falcon 9 first-stage hardware on the ASDS. Two previous attempts were made in January and April 2015, during the opening minutes of the CRS-5 and CRS-6 Dragon ascents. In the first instance, the booster reached the deck—a remarkable technical achievement in its own right—but suffered a premature exhaustion of hydraulic fluid in its hypersonic grid fins, causing it to impact at a 45-degree angle and explode, whilst on the second occasion the stage experienced excessive lateral movement in its final seconds of descent, causing it to topple after alighting on the ASDS. A spectacularly successful touchdown on solid ground, at Landing Zone (LZ)-1 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, was accomplished using the Upgraded Falcon 9 first stage on 21 December. It is understood from SpaceX, however, that ASDS landings must be perfected in order to cater “for future high-velocity launches that don’t have enough of a delta-velocity budget to return to the launch site.”

Efforts to guide the first-stage hardware down to the ASDS got underway immediately after it separated from the remainder of the Falcon 9, by which time it was traveling at a velocity of 2,900 mph (4,670 km/h). Maintaining stabilization during these excessive aerodynamic conditions has been likened to balancing a rubber broomstick in the palm of the hand, whilst in the midst of a fierce windstorm. An initial “boost-back” burn got underway at 10:46 a.m. PST (1:46 p.m. EST), effectively flipping the 150-foot-tall (46-meter) first stage over, to protect the engines in the run-up to atmospheric re-entry. A second firing, known as the “retro-propulsion” or “re-entry” burn, began at 10:49 a.m. PST (1:49 p.m. EST) and served to slow the incoming first stage to about 560 mph (900 km/h). During this time, the four hypersonic grid fins, configured in an “X-wing” layout and tasked with controlling the lift vector, were successfully deployed.

Finally—and most critically—the “landing” burn was due to occur at 10:53 a.m. PST (1:53 p.m. EST), with great anticipation that the first stage would alight on the ASDS in a similarly smooth fashion to that seen a few weeks ago at LZ-1. It was expected that this third and final burn would slow the vehicle to just 4.5 mph (7.2 km/h). Maddeningly, however, the video feed from the ASDS was lost in these final crucial moments, due to a combination of factors, including its oceanic position and the presence of heavy waves.

Of course, the insertion of Jason-3 into orbit remained the primary objective of the mission, but the return of the first stage to the deck of the ASDS naturally attracted much attention. At 11:11 a.m. PST (2:11 p.m. EST), about 29 minutes after launch, the bittersweet news emerged from SpaceX: the first stage had reached the deck and had landed on-target, but had done somewhat harder than expected, resulting in the breakage of one of its four landing legs. “Reporter said the booster was not upright on the barge,” AmericaSpace’s Launch Tracker noted, “but they were exactly where they expected to be.”

The booster’s legs span about 60 feet (18 meters) when fully unfurled, which provide sufficient stability, although it remained to be seen how a broken member would affect its status. “First stage on target at drone ship, but looks like hard landing; broken landing leg,” SpaceX tweeted, but added: “Primary mission remains nominal.” It subsequently became apparent that the failure of one of the legs to latch had caused the stage to topple over, as evidenced by an image issued by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, who later tweeted: “Touchdown speed was ok, but a leg lockout didn’t latch, so it tipped over after landing.”

Meanwhile, after a successful 46-minute coast, the Merlin 1D Vacuum engine ignited for the second occasion at 11:37 a.m. PST (2:37 p.m. EST) and burned for about 30 seconds, prior to the separation of Jason-3 into an orbit whose perigee will draw it as close as 825 miles (1,328 km) to Earth and as far as 857 miles (1,380 km) at apogee. The spacecraft’s twin solar arrays were deployed shortly afterwards and were fully unfurled by 11:48 a.m. PST (2:48 p.m. EST). It is anticipated that Jason-3 will remain operational for at least three years.


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Missions » JASON-3 »


  1. I’ve said over and over, this is not a good way to do recovery. I guess they will keep hammering their heads into a wall proving me more and more right. I’ve done more successful recoveries of tactical missiles than anyone I know, so why would Musk ask an expert? He’s the smartest man alive. Smh

    • You may be smarter than Musk but he certainly has better web developers. Seriously each attempt they’ve gotten closer to success so in no way does that suggest anyone is beating their head against a wall; the metaphoric wall doesn’t exists in practice as of yet. Lets see what happens next month when SES-9 mission attempts to land with the upgraded legs (I am sure the leg 3 locking problem will be scrutinized as it may apply to the upgraded legs).

    • SpaceX has already performed a ground landing and soon it will do the same at sea. Musk has continually proven his detractor’s wrong at every turn. It’s really quite gratifying to see the anti-Musk brigade foam at the mouth as SpaceX achieves success after success.

    • “I’ve done more successful recoveries of tactical missiles than anyone I know”

      That’s really awesome! SpaceX has done a great job of publishing pictures and video from both their successes and failures at rocket landing.

      Where can we see pictures or video of the missiles you landed?

  2. They don’t give up, so they will likely get fairly successful. I’ve never failed in a recovery, so I just have a higher standard. I’ve explained to engineers how I would have done it and the “ah, yeah, that would work better”‘s generally follow. They are just trying to copy Blue Origin so I understand the “whys”. I think landing on Mars also drives them.

    • Wow, not only are you the smartest person, you also never fail, and everyone says that your ideas “would work better”. I’m amazed.

      But I’m also amazed at how misinformed you are about your Blue Origin comment. So I guess you are fallible after all.

    • That issue looks insurmountable…should just shut down the whole development program because the lockout collet failed on one leg…

      I was happy to hear the failure was because of this leg lock rather than just the rough sea state by itself; the leg issue can be fixed. This bodes well for smooth touchdown even in 10-15 foot seas. The deck was pitching quite a bit from the video feed moments before it froze up and still touchdown was nominal. Cross another line off the FUD throwers list, along with the hover-slam will never work and the stage will be so damaged on even successful landing it will never be fired again.

      • “That issue looks insurmountable…”

        It is interesting, the number of comments on various sites and blogs this morning suggesting freshwater lakes, parachutes, mechanical arms, oil rigs, and any number of other wildly complex solutions as alternatives to simply improving the reliability of the leg locking mechanism.

        • Indeed. One of my favorites was a forklift (seriously) that they thought could be driven up next to the rocket to hold it up before it fell over.

          Rube Goldberg landing pads?

    • Yep, looks good. Each and every mission brings them that bit closer to perfecting barge landings.

  3. The legs are a bunch of extra weight that hurts mass fraction. I wouldn’t be willing to do it that wastefully. Sorry. I just have higher standards when I design recovery systems. But let the amateurs go do their thing.

    • OK, you’ve stated this three times now. We get it, you dislike SpaceX, you’re not alone with such tribal thinking but thankfully Musk and his team are ignoring naysayers like you and doing their own thing, successfully I might add.

      The ULA-bots have really been upping their game in the past year, Musk must doing something right. 🙂

    • I love how the sands of criticism shift in 24 hours. We start with banging head against an impossible wall with this approach. Then move to they will probably make it work given persistence. The video drops and oops yea just need to tweak the approach to make it work so now we are onto dry mass fraction and efficiency trades.

      Landing gear on aircraft are also just a waste of dry mass I suppose, there are examples of aircraft without landing gear for sure. What for the life of me can’t understand is concern over mass fraction of landing legs if the stage can already perform the mission with the landing legs included. They’ve proven LEO delivery with RTLS landing already. Next month they will be attempting a landing on drone ship after putting a very hefty, expensive SES bird into GTO. If they can soft-land the F9 stage for that mission that is like 70-80 percent of the addressable commercial market with recovery capability; the rest will need FH anyway. So basically once you can do that the vast majority of commercially viable missions are doable with RTLS or RTDS and complaining about mass fraction of legs is like complaining about landing gear on a 737. Just as a precautionary measure I understand the rocket equation and Isp difference between a rocket and jet engine (Its an analogue). I also don’t think the legs make the difference for a high transfer energy mission making it back to land or not for F9. So ether way you are going to be doing something out to sea to get the high energy stages back.

    • That’s great. I’m looking forward to seeing your high-standard recovery systems take market share from SpaceX. Best of luck.

  4. I’m not anti-Musk. I’m just anti-waste. He didn’t use experts and lost missions that weren’t necessary to lose. Experts understand galvanic corrosion. Experts understand slosh. Experts in recovery understand how to do it without wasting mass fraction or flight vehicles. Like I alluded to earlier, they do keep plugging away and sooner or later they get there. As one of those said experts I just cringe at the waste. As long as its his money who cares. But with my tax money I do care.

    • Actually, the trial-and-error approach is not wasteful at all. This evolutionary method is more bottom-up and invites innovation, even if it is by trial-and-error, and the errors hurt. Hiring a bunch of overpriced “experts” is the top-down method which will be reliable, but lacking in innovation, expensive, and the same as it was before. The errors are a necessary price to pay to avoid getting stuck with the dead wood. The innovation we are now seeing in the space industry is driven by new-space. The old-space players are lurching out of their cozy slumber only because they are driven to it. If they are to survive they too will soon be hiring new talent and getting rid of their tunnel-visioned old “experts”.

      • Also the recovery program for F9 is not government funded. It has been stated numerous times that SpaceX is funding F9 stage recovery out of their own pockets/private investment. So all can rest easy on.

    • “He didn’t use experts and lost missions that weren’t necessary to lose.”

      Granted, I don’t have access to SpaceX’ HR files, so I can’t say what they’ve hired, but I have kept an eye on job openings over the last few years. All of the engineering positions I’ve seen advertised wanted PEs, and were specific about experience in their areas of specialty.

      If SpaceX isn’t using experts, who have they hired? Was the Falcon 9 designed by fry cooks? If it wasn’t designed by experts, I’m pretty impressed by the accomplishments they’ve achieved so far, with satellites delivered to orbit and payloads to the ISS. The loss of CRS-7 is a bit more understandable if they had put gardeners and janitors in charge of QA instead of experts.

      No disparagement to janitors, gardeners or fry-cooks, I’ve known people in each of those categories who were great people, hardworking and skilled at their trades – they just weren’t experts in rocket design.

    • Just out of curiosity did the experts understand cavitation, at Boeing, when the first Delta IV Heavy failed? Or was this just a bunch of amateurs that wouldn’t listen to people like you?

      Was Arianespace full of a bunch of rookie engineers that knew nothing about computer science or register overflows? Just waiting for someone to claim they have the perfect GNC solution that can never fail if only they had the right “expert” consulting.

      In summary if two of some of the most experienced orbit class rocket developers can have oversights that cause failures of the first vehicle in a configuration, of existing established vehicle families, why would we hold a different standard for SpaceX? F1 had a bunch of failures but they were starting from scratch. F9 has an amazing reliability record, given historical comparisons to new development vehicles, even with the CRS-7 failure taken into account. You must be very critical of NASA, the Russians, Lockheed Martin / GDSS for Titan Failures, Boeing for Delta III failures. You would think that the “experts” at ULA would have not had a simple leaking LOX valve on Centaur cause early RL-10 shutdown. If only they understood “leaks” from an expert on leaky plumbing….

  5. Just because you are an expert or have experience doesn’t mean you have tunnel vision. It just means you know there are certain things that lead to trouble. For the most part we are looking at 50 year old technology. The only things new in this business are the incredible amount of computing power and advances in material science. So it really isn’t all that hard. You just need to avoid obvious mistakes. Recovery is still a bit of an art, but even that is pretty old technology. You just need to march through your requirements and find a proper solution. I find this solution inelegant and wasteful in terms of mass fraction and vehicles. I can explain better solutions that anyone can understand if you sign an NDA.

    • Joe,

      you can just prove WHOLE WORLD how stupid and idiotic they are, with just publishing YOUR way. Who gives a shit about NDA, you will get all the glory anyway, sell the story rights and movie rights!

      Heck, you can even sell it to China or Russia or any other number of space countries out there. Fu** the SPACEX.

      On top of that, you will have even better argument selling your WAY saying “If stupid IDIOTS at SPACEX can do it, you can do it with my way, cause its 100000x times better and surperior”

      Your attitude and way how you piss on other people trail-and-error approach is what is WRONG with human race

      I will assume you American (Since you talking about YOUR TAX MONEY) and you are IGNORING the fact, that landing is NOT paid by your tax MONEY!

      The best advice I can give you is, that you can be x1000 times right and STILL not Being An Asshole but you choose NOT to.

      On top of that, NASA just given awards to 3 companies (one of them is SPACEX), so please comment also DREAM CHASER as well Orbital ATK’s Cygnus landing effort and idea as general. (I am sure that suck as well!)

      At this point I would pay more attention to Kim Jong-un (North Korea dictator) advices how to lunch rockets then you!

      You are typing random stuff while at any given point you never ever said anything specific. It’s like watching people reading tarot cards and giving prediction about future.

      If your di** is bigger, better, whatever, show it off, and watch us all die in shock and awe.

      If your way is better ofcourse 🙂

    • Does your solution involve parachutes? Splashdowns at sea?

      If Yes, then you are wrong.

      These are not the solutions that will work in this case.

      Keep in mind this is not ONLY to recover the first stage. It is also to enable rapid reuse of the first stage. The eventual end goal is a “gas n’ go” mode of operation, with no refurbishment and minimal inspections.

      So landing accuracy is paramount. It has to be recovered in a precise place, so parachutes won’t cut it, they aren’t accurate enough.

      No damage is essential, so you can’t dunk it in sea water. They don’t want to have to clean it or refurbish or replace parts damaged by salt water. so splashdowns are out.

  6. Nope, nope. I’m not an amateur. I do this all the time. The thermal shock would do as much or more damage than the salt water corrosion.
    But yes, if the motor is vastly over designed then mass fraction is not a problem. This approach is just not very robust, so you get a lot of crashes.

    • “Nope, nope. I’m not an amateur. I do this all the time.”

      If you do this all the time, why has the press all mistakenly credited SpaceX as being the first to land a first stage that launched a payload on its way to orbit?

      You’ve pegged my bullsh*t meter to its maximum. It doesn’t go any further.

      • He’s mentioned further down that he worked on MAST-M, a missile recovery system for Stinger missiles, which was used to test the guidance electronics in flight but without destroying them with every test.

        Not something he needed to be so cryptic about, and which might have lent him a bit of credibility.

        So I believe him when he says he has recovered missiles, even done so with a flawless track record; but we are talking about a missile that is 5 feet long, with a range of 5 miles. Nothing on the scale of an orbital launch vehicle.

        • I used to work for one of the Raytheon subs on Stinger. Even by anti-aircraft missile standards that’s a baby. Literally just setup a giant net and you are golden; the energy levels there are trivial. I wonder how hooking a cable with the top of the stage would scale up to BFR??

  7. I recovered a bunch of missiles and re-flew them. My criticism is more about the fact he won’t hire experts and hence makes a lot of mistakes. From my perspective that is bad. From yours I’m an a-hole. ok

    • Were your missiles the size of a 14-story building? Are they launching payloads into orbit?


      Perhaps they are designed differently and have a different reuse mode in mind.

      Hence the recovery systems are different.


  8. I’ve never designed the same recovery system for any two applications. The requirements were too different. There is a bible on recovery systems written by the Navy, but the Space Launch reuse recovery would have to go off script even for the “bible”. Actual engineers have seen my approach for Space X and they thought it was genius.

    • Joe,

      you just posted on internet, that other people saying you are genius.

      It should be other way around, you should be humble and modest, while other peopel say things about you.

      Your EGO is OFF the chart, around Mars orbit or beyond (I know you would want to go to moon first!)

      Patent the damn thing, publish it, don’t brag about it on witch is a NEWS site, not EGO boost site.

    • If actual engineers find you to be a genius, then I’m sure you can wow us with a brief description of your recovery system.

      If you don’t want to do that, then I agree with Ivan: just shut up your whining, go patent your system, and talk to SpaceX, Blue Origin, Orbital ATK, the ULA, Arianespace, Roscosmos, India, or the Japanese about putting it into their rockets. Then we can see your system and judge it on its merit when it actually flies.

  9. I don’t own the video of the missiles I’ve landed. They belong to my clients. If I landed a rocket for Space X I couldn’t release video of their system either. I wouldn’t own it. Frequently, even the companies don’t own that data. It can only be released their gov’t customer. The last time I asked a customer for video to use for marketing they refused me. Having some private money in the pot does have its advantages although NASA is always hip for cool video release. I’ve just never worked for them.

    • Joe,

      all this legal stuff is OK, and if you talk about work history, also great, but if your idea is yours, it’s so not important where you worked, or for who, or how long. Makes no difference.

      Albert Einstein worked in Swiss Patent Office (oh the irony). Nobody cares about that, the work he published makes no difference where he worked or what cookies did he eat or what type of cat he had (if any, I am making this as I go!)

      I dont care, where you worked, how old are you, what religion are you, color of skin etc.

      You put up or shut up. Do as you say, and say as you do.

      EGO issue – please please please please, drop it.

      In my eyes you will not be any more or less cool if you worked for NASA or whoever.

      Thank you.

  10. I’m regretting wasting time on this. Its like most things on the internet, you just end up talking to children. You can say what you want about the Estes crowd they do think of their rockets as sacred and give it their best shot to recover them. Before the gov’t shut me down I actually flew missiles on amateur ranges and those guys were actually kinda professional about their ranges until I flew my test article and then they had ten times the enthusiasm of “professionals”. They were hooting an hollering like kids.

    Do a search for MAST-M and I have a paper posted of one of my projects although it yields no insight as to how I’d execute a launch vehicle recovery. The loads allowed are too low for that kind of recovery. My new approach is more akin to an aircraft carrier recovery although there are no wheels.

    • Flying the stage down with a hook to grab a wire on an elevated frame is not a new idea if that’s where you are going. Nor is the idea of a tee bar unfolding from the stage and landing/engaging into an inclined ramp with and teeth to slow down the let the stage swinging like a gymnast at the summer Olympics. There are 100 contraption-landing ideas out there, yet no one bothers to do this with a helicopter for some reason.

      So you are game with the SpaceX propulsive decent to a pinpoint landing you’d just rather use a contraption rather than landing legs, which the stage clearly already has mass margin for and still get the job done? Does your system involve putting loads on the stage in ways that are not seen on accent/decent profile? Meaning will the stage need to be reinforced in a variety of ways that adds mass? The legs attach low the stage over the thrust structure, is that where you are engaging your contraption?

  11. I guess I gave clues that were too good as you are very warm. The loads would be different but of the same magnitude. Long skinny structures are generally stronger in tension than compression. The real point isn’t just to minimize loads but to enhance robustness. Intercept with potential for multiple tries and fairly large error bounds is ALOT more robust than hitting a point in space with V={0,0,0] and P={Xl,Yl,Zl] and no catching mechanism. You launch with a launcher and you catch with a catcher. No exactly brain taxing stuff. Every one of the missions so far would have been a successful catch with my approach.

    Catching with a helicopter has been done with UAVs and other stuff, but no helicopter is big enough to catch this vehicle. So I’d not propose it.

    • Ah my point about the helicopter is people don’t generally land them into contraptions just use landing gear…

      Again, easy to pick-up because the idea is old as dirt. Staggering cables to engage for multiple tries is also not new. If you think you can hook a 20-ton stage from the top and not impact reusability without increasing the structural mass fraction go for it. If you think your contraption has a lower total cost of ownership (building, maintaining and operating than four legs and a flat deck) go for it. If you plan on dropping off one of the contraptions everywhere you want to land you also have to calculate that into the overall TCO.

      • I should add nobody cares of the last three attmepts are successful or not. What matters, in the long run, is do you have the most economical, ops efficient and location agnostic landing technique as possible.

    • So your “catcher” idea allows for multiple tries? How high up are you trying to catch the rocket? In other words, how far can the rocket fall between catch attempts? Are you slowing it down? Or are you attempting to catch at terminal velocity?

      Sorry, but so far your vague hints at a recovery method don’t pass the smell test. It sounds like your experience is limited to fairly small missiles, nothing on the scale that SpaceX is working at. Some things that might work very well for small rockets wouldn’t work well for large orbital launchers.

      As Clio has said, the idea of catching rockets using cables or nets of cables is not exactly new, it’s been around for a really long time. There’s a wide assortment of reasons why SpaceX (and others) would reject it as an option, just like they have rejected using parachutes for descent. It just doesn’t work for them, it doesn’t fit what they are doing.

  12. Ugh..unless you are just trolling you do care. Why get excited about the one success? Reading betw4en the lines of what Musk said the first attempt had a 50% probability of success. He said the one that suceeded had a 10% higher chance of success which is either 55% or 60%. My point is why not have a system that is 99….% chance of success? The problem is that engine is huge. It has a turbopump spinning at thousands of RPMS. There is hydraulic ram effect, etc., etc. that makes the response time sluggish, hence touching down like a helicopter not easy. Why not help it out. And a helicopter has to land everywhere, not just in a catch zone. So its requirements drive it to skids. If helicopters only had to land in landing zones engineers wouldn’t put skids on them either. You make a flight vehicle as light as you possible can to conserve fuel.

    • Joe,

      look I am all for new ideas ok? Bring it! The issue with spacex is they publish alot of things, good, bad and ugly, so they are on spotlight, and for some reason people mostly focus on them as like they are only company doin this!

      U say “My point is why not have a system that is 99….% chance of success?”

      I agree!

      But we dont know any other way that is better. You for some reason do.

      In my modest REAL-LIFE business experience, IDEA usual start with 1-a-b-c but almost never end up in that shape or form. After months and months of work, your first idea will change as you go and you encounter issues you did not think of at first and so on, and you end up with something like 1-H-B-c

      Same should be with YOUR idea, unless you have already used your way and made some lunches and collected some data+feedback and made changes based on data, I dont think your way is 99% success rate from start.

      Again, saying something is 99% sucess rate without really showing or doin anything is not goin to make it 99% success in real life.

      Your mental effort is COOL, but you are the one saying that you have super cool “magic green troll” in the closet who can make all your wishes come true, the point is, its not on us to prove that your “magic green troll” dont really exist, its on you to prove it dose, and we judge you based on evidence (You wrote “you just end up talking to children” so I thought it’s kind of cool to explain this from my inner child perspective!)

      Again, bring it!

    • Most helicopters DO land on a set landing zone – helipads. Why not design them without landing gear, but with a catch system at each helipad?

      However, you are aware that SpaceX’s ultimate goal is to land on Mars, right? There won’t be a catch zone there.

      • Yea, even without including Mars, which is total deal breaker, you are looking at a minimum 12 massive catchers to build and maintain to have the same functionality across FL, CA and TX. 3 drone ships and 3 catchers per launch site for FH RTLS. Granted 3 core RTLS is a low use mission profile but just for parity to legs you would need it to compare. That’s 12 catchers worth of maintenance and upkeep. Aircraft carrier arresting systems are not low maintenance machines by any stretch. A concrete slab is pretty much the lowest maintenance infrastructure one can have. A ship with a flat deck is closest thing on water to a concrete slab. The economics for reusability has many unknowns no sense adding ongoing operational costs where you don’t need to.

        Also the leg mass fraction is significant but pales in comparison to propellant withholding penalty. If you are going to do powered, precision landing you mine as well go all the way and land like a real skydiver and not a tandem rookie in my opinion. The hover-slam and soft landing bit already works (twice in a row now) so this is no longer a consideration for changing anything. Lastly, and Musk would probably agree on this, landing in a catcher mechanism is quite ignominious. Imagine any other form of widely used transportation where that was the preferred way to land?

  13. Is anyone seeing the clarification that Musk made about the failure cause relating to ice build up and related weight gain from high humidity and condensation at launch as the primary factor for leg collapse and not the locking mechanism?

    • Joe,

      it can be 100% bullshit, but on other hand, if ICE got buildup in the LOCK system where the leg is suppose to lock-in, it’s very much possible to much ice can stop the process of leg-lock.

      The lockout collet on one of the rocket’s four legs didn’t latch, leading to the mishap, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk wrote in a post on Twitter and Instagram.

      “Root cause may have been ice buildup due to condensation from heavy fog at liftoff,” he said.

      It’s not like ICE NEVER-EVER caused any accident ever in airline industry, or even space shuttle accident. ICE is really a big problem for anything that fly.

      You are expert, you should know that.

      • There is an old movie called “Deal of the Century”.

        In it an aerospace company is trying to sell a remote control fighter plane. At a demonstration of the plane instead of attacking the intended targets it goes after the attendees in the viewing stands.

        Later the engineers explain the disaster to the head of the company. They tell him that somebody washed the plane prior to the demonstration and the aircraft would have worked if it had not gotten wet.

        The exasperated company head replies: “Did any of you people ever hear of rain!”

          • The movie is a comedy and as far as I know the company was completely fictional.

            Still it was a good illustration of not making your vehicle susceptible to malfunction due to routine situations in the environment in which it is intended to function.

            Like rain or (supposedly in this case) fog.

            • Well Rome wasn’t built in a day either. These are the first generation legs for just testing landing in the first place. Not expected to be prime time ready for all circumstances as they were already iterated for FT. I feel there is a pretty big crowd that doesn’t really appreciate/accept the fail often, fail early concept in a test program such as this. You can spend the coin to do a ton of unit testing and simulation and have few live tests (which is the NASA way for sure) or you can test more often and see failures live and iterate more frequently. I think you need to pick your battles when budgeting for development when it isn’t cost plus (And this is on SpaceX’s own dime). Spend a lot of time/energy worrying about making sure the leg does not open during the ride up, but let the testing play out on the way down (Since another flight will come along to test again). Of course they are being as minimalist as they can on the legs from a mass perspective as well.

              • Three points and then – as far as I am concerned – every useful thing to be said on the subject will have been exhausted.

                (1) SpaceX is receiving literally Billions of dollars from the government (CR1, CRS2, Commercial Crew and it is drastically underperforming on CRS1). That money frees cash to be spent on the attempts to reuse the first stage. So saying that “this is on SpaceX’s own dime” is misleading at best.

                (2) It is curious that when other projects have anomalies many on the internet pronounce those programs failures and demand they be abandoned, but when SpaceX has such (in this case repeated) set backs it is “Well Rome wasn’t built in a day either.” The SpaceX failures are categorized as successful failures (as they have been described elsewhere). Perhaps in the future you will be as tolerant of others.

                (3) Guess this means you will not be watching “Deal of the Century”. A shame as it is a funny movie.

                • Money is fungible, which holds for SpaceX, Boeing the US Government or Iran for that matter. Nothing-new here. Yes, NASA significantly capitalized SpaceX but so has a bunch of other sources to a significant amount. Saying that some 50 million bucks came from pot A or pot B isn’t the point. The main point is because the development is not cost plus or tied to specific program SpaceX has the incentive to optimize the development dollars. Space X has every incentive to do this so the dollars go the farthest, across all of their many development priorities. This is the overriding advantage of such a model. There very well may be downsides but this is the central upside.

                  For the record I think it was a mistake to abandon DC-X, for example, and not double down on the technology in the 90s. I think because SpaceX is more open with their successes and failures they get a lot more street cred in general. That’s a shame for everyone else but reality. Hopefully others will find a way deal/mimic it. Also, to be fair if you are going to spend 10 billion on a rocket evolved from existing systems and 7 billion on a capsule that uses a heat-shield formulation based in the 1960s one would expect fewer failures and be somewhat more critical if they occur. That is the nature of the beast.

                  Yes this thread has jumped the shark a long time ago and I am probably significantly to blame and yes, I will watch the movie for sure.

                  • But the real crime is what happened with the VentureStar…from the attached article here


                    NASA has been trying to get away from high launch costs for quite a while and while Joe above seems to think SpaceX and their reusable rocket program is a pipe dream by those looking for the Deal of the Century, seeing that first stage land of the ground at the Cape was a real turning point in reducing the cost of space launch…Then again maybe Joe’s candidate of Bernie Sanders will win the election and return NASA to the glory days of cost plus contracting…

                    • Tracy,

                      “Then again maybe Joe’s candidate of Bernie Sanders….”

                      I studiously avoid commenting on general politics, but since you insist on attributing general political leanings to me, I will say the following.

                      You draw a lot of conclusions based on little (or – in this case – no) evidence/information and therefore you are often entirely wrong.

                      This would be one of those times.

                    • A decades old article on an embryonic program that was later canceled for cause is somewhat less than convincing. Venture star was dead before initiation, with the X33 just a precursor to that failure.

                  • Joe,

                    “You draw a lot of conclusions based on little (or – in this case – no) evidence/information and therefore you are often entirely wrong.”

                    ” SpaceX is receiving literally Billions of dollars from the government (CR1, CRS2, Commercial Crew and it is drastically underperforming on CRS1). That money frees cash to be spent on the attempts to reuse the first stage. So saying that “this is on SpaceX’s own dime” is misleading at best.”

                    If this money doesn’t go to SpaceX, Orbital and now SNC who should it go to?

                    Do you think the reusable program is a waste of money?

                    They gave $1B to Lockeed Martin to build the X-33….that never flew.. Which I think is better than under performing…

                    Clearly you are a BIG GOVERNMENT GUY…No?

                    • “Clearly you are a BIG GOVERNMENT GUY…No?”


                      Not worshipping at the alter of the Elon, does not mean someone is a “BIG GOVERNMENT GUY” and even if it did that would not mean someone must be a Bernie Sanders supporter.

                      For instance per his public statements Sanders wants to reduce space funding and transfer the money to more social spending. So even a “BIG GOVERNMENT GUY” who is also a space supporter would not be likely to support Sanders.

                      Again you make too many assumptions, based on no facts.

                • Joe,

                  in your opinion, all money paid to SPACEX is waste or this goes for ALL of the privat companies NASA is paying so far?

                  I am trying to understand your perspective.

                  Also, what would company need to do for YOU to be happy with money spent.

                  To put things in perspective. When NASA buys (not direclty ofcourse – ULA is doin that) engines from Russia, that money goes to RUSSIA, while when engines (or whatever) are made in USA, that money stay in USA.

                  My point is ULA is also privat company, so how is this different compare to SPACEX or other companies now in play?

                  Cost wise.

                  USA GOV paid 11 Billion to ULA for 28 lunches – now if your GOAL is to bit** about how your GOV is spending money, you are really on wrong website AND wrong topic.


                  They say, total cost would be 17+ billion for 78 rockets (but thats not 78 lunches, some will use more in same time).

                  All in all, ANY type of cost reduction effort, in this case SPACEX, would be welcome from your perspective if the cost is issue.

                  Again, if you have cool idea, and you have cool way of doin SPACE stuff, go to California, and start your startup and get things done! I will be more then happy to see your success!

                  • “Also, what would company need to do for YOU to be happy with money spent.”

                    SpaceX original CRS contract called for them to deliver 44,000 lbs to the ISS in 12 launches by the end of 2015.

                    Actually delivering on that promise, before making other more grandiose promises would have helped.

                    Instead they flew (successfully) 6 times (50%)and delivered 21,358 lbs (49%), while Musk enthralls his fans with tales of building a Martian Colony for 100,000’s of people (on a terra-formed Mars, no less)within 20 years.

                    • Should have added that pointing to what you consider to be bad performance by ULA doesn’t really get you anything.

                      I do not work for them and pointing to what you consider bad performance by others does not justify bad performance by SpaceX.

                    • Joe,

                      I agree with you, but you talked about cost, billions and tax money. (Your MONEY!)

                      So you cant just take ONE company, you have to take ALL of them in perspective.

                      Regarding Elon, he can be as wrong just as you! I did not read anywhere about 100k people in next 20 years.

                      I did read that 100k people want to go, as well possible/maybe 1 million people on Mars by 2100-ish

                      Even so, if you want to help Human race, you can still give away your capture system for free and speed things up!


                    • Ivan,

                      “Even so, if you want to help Human race, you can still give away your capture system for free and speed things up!”

                      You seem to be confusing me with someone else.

                      Perhaps Joe Robinson

                      Not the same guy.

                  • “Also, what would company need to do for YOU to be happy with money spent.”

                    That should be obvious. Any government contractor needs to take all their profits and give them to their shareholders. That is the cornerstone of government finance. Tax the people and spend the money on the most expensive contractor and divert the money to the stockholders, that is the American Way.

                    SpaceX is ruining everything by bidding jobs at lower prices and then reinvesting their profits into new technology. After NASA has paid SpaceX for services rendered, that’s not SpaceXes dime. It’s still the government’s dime. It is utterly wrong for SpaceX to invest it in something that could make space travel less expensive in the future.

                    SpaceX needs to be torn away from NASAs teat to make room for proper old space companies that will charge at least twice as much and hoard the profits for their fat-cats owners on Wall Street! This is the only way spaceflight will become so expensive and slow developing that we can pass the world-wide taxes we need to build giant ice covered atomic rockets on the moon!

    • You might be surprised.

      Any water on the rocket would freeze at the very low pressures in the high upper atmosphere, and even after re-entry it’s very cold at high altitudes. Also, the part in question isn’t on the exterior of the rocket, it’s a part of the leg that’s folded up, so it’s insulated from the exterior temperatures and the rocket’s exhaust. As it descends, the rocket is only exposed to the warmer temperatures in the lower atmosphere for about 30 seconds before landing, which really isn’t enough time for the leg to warm up enough to melt the ice.

  14. You’ve never flown anything at supersonic speeds in the atmosphere. Believe me, freezing is not what you are concerned about. The stagnation temperatures are thousands of degrees.

    • “Things don’t come back from Mach 5 and the edge of space with ice.”

      You made a specific claim which is patently false and provable through the evidence provided above on several fronts. Your missile flying at supersonic speeds through the thick part of the atmosphere, the entire time, is as irrelevant to this discussion as your prior experience “caching” such missiles.

    • Neither have you flown anything that has had to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and land.

      It’s clear you are a bit out of your depth here. That’s okay, none of us can be experts on everything. My advice is to stick with what you’re good at and admit when you are wrong so you can learn from your misstatements.

  15. Well that’s spectacular. I’d have never imagined ice could survive reentry. There’s the additional heat source of proximity to the retro burn plumes but hey I can be wrong. But so far I’ve been right about the frailty of this recovery approach and I predicted problems before the first shot.

    • Joe,

      You nearly/almost gave me a heart attack when I read “but hey I can be wrong”.

      Please stay away from computer and internet today, whatever happen to you, it should be over by tomorrow!

    • Except SpaceX has successfully landed the first stage once, and you have failed to even give even a basic overview of what your alternative catcher system is.

      Until further notice I will assume it is something like this:

      Except, I presume, based on your earlier comments, that there would be hooks at the top of the rocket to catch on the wires, rather than having the wires secure the middle of it.

  16. You don’t know me. I make mistakes all the time, just not with flight vehicles. I’m 100% with those. I’m offended by a cavalier attitude towards flight vehicles, but I’m learning that’s a personal foible. I do wish Space X all the luck in the world, but using the experience of experts would mean less luck would be necessary.

    • There are very few who have experience landing rockets, and none who have experience landing a rocket that has been used to put a payload into orbit. SpaceX ARE the experts when it comes to that.

  17. I told Space X I didn’t like their idea and offered to do it better. They rejected my offer although I didn’t give away my idea. As a professional I don’t work for free. They did give away their Tesla patents so it does tempt me to be similarly generous. I just don’t think they are ready to abandon their approach yet, so I’ll wait. Reading between the lines their sims are showing 60% success. Experience is proving much worse. I think I can do 99% or better because I’ve never had the luxury of believing my programs could survive failure. So I design for robustness. It’s not that hard to find me.

    • Since it’s odds-on that your rocket catching scheme isn’t any better than that of the 10,000 other armchair engineers who have approached SpaceX and told them they could land a rocket better than they can, I’m not surprised they rejected you.

  18. I’m a big gov’t guy, but I want Musk to succeed. I love Falcon and SLS, but have no love for the EELV cabal.

    Arrestor cables atop four fast rising carbon fiber towers that snag under the grid fins may be enought to keep a wonky booster from falling over.

    Then, the landing leg (or whatever) can be fixed and the booster salvaged.

    Imagine a mousetrap of goalposts with cables for cross-beams–arrestor cables like that on a carrier–but vertical.

    The more the pad does–the less the rocket has to work.

    Also–in the future–make BFR something wide like Big Onion–land directly on the water–no barge.

    More stable too.

    • You know what I can imagine? I rocket landing on four legs. Not because I have a great imagination but because I have eyes.

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